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New commission aims to engage Utah political candidates in debate

Published: Monday, Feb. 24 2014 3:44 p.m. MST

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, and Democratic challenger Scott Howell look on before the start of the VoteUtah 2012 U.S. Senate Debate Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, in Provo, Utah.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — A newly formed commission plans to hold prime-time political debates for Utah voters this fall to create a more meaningful discussion on issues and boost turnout at the polls.

The new Utah Debate Commission, patterned after the Commission on Presidential Debates, will organize and sponsor the events in cooperation with the state's major television stations and universities. Organizers say the commission is the first of its kind in the country.

"We hope that candidates, parties and voters will help create a culture of debating in Utah that will enhance the electoral process for all," said former Gov. Olene Walker, commission co-chairwoman.

Utah has some of the lowest voter turnout in the nation, largely because Republican dominance makes for little competition in most statewide races. Incumbents and candidates running ahead in the polls have little incentive to debate their opponents in a public forum. The commission hopes to change that.

Former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and commission co-chairman Scott Howell saw that firsthand when he ran against longtime GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012. The two debated only once.

"I lived it," Howell said. "I absolutely lived it."

The bipartisan commission has already set out a debate schedule for Utah's four congressional offices and attorney general this September and October, and Howell said TV stations have agreed to air the hourlong debates regardless of whether a candidate skips out.

"If the opposing candidate doesn't show up, the candidate's that's there gets the whole time to themselves," he said.

Howell said the commission would conduct polls to determine which candidates outside the two major parties to invite to the debates. Right now, he said it's considering a showing of 10 percent.

"This is a way to break through and get directly to the voters whether (candidates) have money or not," said former Sen. Bob Bennett, a commission co-chairman.

Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy and Elections at BYU, said the challenge will be whether the commission has the cachet to get candidates to participate.

"It's not a party-centered system. It's a candidate-centered system. They get to make up their own minds. They can resist pressure as long as they can see the electoral consequences aren't very large," he said.

Monson said he doesn't think the debates will boost voter turnout.

"The culprit for voter turnout is the lack of competition in the general election," he said. "But that's not say this isn't a good idea. I think this is, on balance, helpful, and I hope it works."

Howell said no other state has created a commission that brings together the news media, higher education and civic leaders to better inform voters about candidates.

Richard Davis, a BYU political science professor, and several other professors kicked around the idea for the commission last fall, eventually getting the other players to buy in.

An 18-member board, including television news directors, newspaper editors and educators, oversees the commission. Deseret News Editor Paul Edwards and KSL Executive Vice President Tanya Vea are among the board members.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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